Dosai’s (104 Lexington Avenue; 212-684-4010) namesake dish is essentially the Indian version of a crepe, a caramel-colored lentil-and-rice-flour pancake rolled into a long cylinder and extending well beyond the edges of the metal tray on which it’s served. Four sauces (lentil and tamarind vegetable stew known as sambhar and coriander, coconut, and mango pickle chutneys) come on the side of the dosas, each offered with boldly spiced fillings, such as spicy potatoes smothered with red chutney ($10.95), fresh vegetables ($11.50), and time-honored Chettinadu masala dosa ($11.50), made with a spicy mix of cashew paste and tomatoes inside a peppery wrap. Dosai and other traditional dishes from the Tamil Nadu region of India are featured at the new kosher vegetarian Curry Hill restaurant.
The cuisine is rooted in ancient history, and many of the dishes prepared today have been passed down through centuries. The area is known for its piquant fare, hotter and bolder than in the northern regions of the country, generously seasoned with red and green chiles, green cardamom, coriander, curry leaves, mustard seed, rosewater, and other pungent spices. Vegetarianism is popular in the region, and as a result the cuisine includes a bounty of rice, lentils, and other legumes. [Editor’s note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
Dosa are said to have originated in the region; they started as a breakfast item, but are now consumed throughout the day. Vatha kozhambhu ($12.95), one of the area’s notable entrees, is just one of the South Indian curries featured on the menu. The dish is a mix of okra and black chana (chickpeas) with onion in a thin tamarind curry sauce. While the menu at Dosai indicated the dish is spicy, it’s actually fairly mellow on the heat. In Tamil Nadu each curry has its own unique base; everything is fresh; you don’t find tomato paste or ground ingredients, just fresh herbs and vegetables. Moru kozhambhu ($13.95) is a blend of yogurt with coconut, green pumpkin, and mustard seeds. Red pumpkin thoran ($13.95) with kala chana (black garbanzo beans) is combined with coconut and curry leaves.
At Dosai, exotic vegetables such as green bananas, gherkins, bitter gourd, and snake gourd appear in many dishes. Banana varuval ($13.95) is a prime example — crisp sautéed green bananas flavored with a house blend of spices — along with bean poriyal ($13.95), green beans tossed with fresh coconut and dry red chiles. Rice dishes are quite striking as well: The bisi bela huliana pairs rice with tamarind-infused lentils and yogurt. Each tamarind, lemon, or tomato rice dish has a striking, individual flavor — you’ll want to try them all.
Thali, stainless steel trays with bowls of aromatic chutneys, curries, and stews, offer diners a chance to sample multiple dishes at once. Available for lunch ($11.95) and dinner ($16.95), the Chennai Express and South Indian thali (there’s also a lunch option featuring North Indian cuisine) come with rasam (tamarind-based soup with tomatoes and lentils), sambhar, two vegetables, appalam (papadum), pickles, raita (spiced-yogurt sauce), parotta (pan-grilled bread), and dessert. “Thali is all over India,” says chef Hemnath Nagarajan. “There’s Rajasthani thali. It’s the name of the city or state with their own food. For us, it’s the Chennai Express.”
The spiced rice renditions at Dosai must not be missed. Parpu podi ghee rice ($7.50) contains steamed rice with lentil powder and ghee. Bisi bela huliana ($8.50) is the most popular, with tamarind-infused lentils and yogurt. The coconut rice ($8.50), which is specific to Chennai, is killer, stir-fried with mustard seed and curry leaves with coconut milk and grated coconut. “You only see rices in Tamil,” says Nagarajan.
The restaurant, which has been open about a month and a half now, was founded by Michelin-starred chef/partner Hemant Mathur, chef and co-owner of the group that runs Chola, Malai, Marke, Chote Nawad, Kokum, and Haldi. To oversee the kitchen, he brought Nagarajan, a native of Chennai, to bring a taste of his homeland to the restaurant. Because it’s vegetarian and already following kosher law, they decided to step it up by qualifying for rabbinical certification. It does offer some well-known North Indian dishes, but Mathur is hoping to spread the word about the fare he’s been eating his whole life. “Most people don’t know Tamil, because most of the Indian cuisine is from the north,” he says. “Dosai is a favorite food all over the world. I’m glad to hear one of our dishes is so popular. I just want people to come here and taste our food.”
Correction published 7/8/15: The original version of this article made mention of Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual master, inaccurately identifying him as a Hindu god.